By Amy McElroy
Agents, editors, publishers, and mainstream readers tell writers to engage readers by the first line of the work. Then, to maintain each reader’s attention, the writer must never let up until the final word. One essential part of that job is to choose the correct point of view for the story—the perspective from whom the story is being told—and to maintain that point of view to keep the reader’s attention focused on the story, the characters, and the setting.
While point of view is an essential element of the story, done correctly, the reader should never even be aware of the concept within the work. The point of view should be so effortlessly clear that the reader should never even think to question it.
Examine the basics of each point of view and its effects on the reader to select the best one for your story.
Writing a story from the first person point of view (POV), from the “I” perspective, brings an unparalleled intimacy to the story. The reader can access the work directly through the narrator’s entire sensory experiences and thought process. But, this point of view can be limiting in other ways. For example, anything other characters say or do outside the narrator’s sensory perception typically cannot be conveyed. Common historical knowledge, however, is presumably available to the narrator.
It’s less common to tell a story in second person, by speaking directly to the reader as “you,” but occasionally the right circumstance presents itself. This direct communication can create a certain sense of power. It’s particularly effective in poetry and other shorter works. But without due care, the form becomes monotonous to the reader after awhile; it’s difficult to write from this POV without overusing the word “you.”
3rd Person Simple vs. Limited Omniscient vs. General Omniscient
The third person point of view uses the third person, “he” or “she,” to primarily convey one character’s perspective.
While at first glance, using the third person does remove an obvious level of intimacy between the storyteller and reader, as compared to first person, the intimacy can be heightened through the intensity of detail sometimes not available from the first person POV.
The third person limited omniscient perspective allows a writer to switch from one character’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations to another. Thus, the inclusion of the word “omniscient”: in this case it refers to the writer’s power to move from character to character. Clearly, this ability creates flexibility for the writer. But the potential for confusion and disconnection between the reader and the narrator poses serious risks.
On the other hand, telling a story with knowledge of everyone’s thoughts, called the general omniscient point of view, requires seriously adept skill, appropriate only for certain works. It’s as if the narrator has stepped into the eyes of god (thus, the word “omniscient” in this context). In the rare cases when this POV succeeds, a certain mood pervades the entire work, sometimes a presence of a higher power or predestination as a character lurking behind the scenes in the novel, waiting for the inevitable conclusion. Review successful examples of general omniscient perspective in books such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.
A poorly written work with the general omniscient perspective can leaves a reader dry and unsympathetic—unsure of whom to relate or root for in the story. A disconnected reader who doesn’t care about the characters is likely to abandon the story. That’s why the overarching mood in the general omniscient point of view is so important. This god-like (or devilish?) presence or feeling—call it a sense of predestination or doomsday—gives the work another “character” of interest and colors the rest of the story. Well-written fairy tales carry this quality, even if they are built toward happy endings. The inevitability of sense of predestination pervades the work.
Consistency Within the Chosen POV
As described above, the general omniscient point of view is very different than switching back and forth between characters and their own perspectives using the limited omniscient point of view. This switching method has become extremely popular in recently published fiction. Even this, I don’t recommend very often. And when writers feel they must do it, I suggest they at least separate the characters’ perspectives by chapters.
Here’s why: anytime a writer identifies with a character and his or her feelings, the writer begins telling the story from that character’s perspective or POV. Readers begin to identify from whomever’s POV the story is being told, and switching up that POV can cause two primary problems: (1) with whom should the reader identify? and (2) confusion and/or loss of engagement for the reader. Switching the POV without losing the reader’s identification or engagement requires advanced skill.
Examples of Inconsistent POV:
I hope it comes today. It’s been two weeks since they said it would be here, and everyone else knows where they’re going to college. I can’t wait much longer. I know it was a long shot, but they tell you to apply for a reach school. Every day I run down to that mailbox with the giant numbers 15640, like an empty tomb. Well, not empty, full of confetti flyers for pizza and mattresses and one hundred other things I don’t need and can’t afford because I haven’t been to college yet.
Meanwhile, the letter was sitting in someone else’s hands, had been sent to another mailbox with the same large numbers painted on it, just out of Anna’s reach.
The example above shows what happens when a reader may start to empathize with a first-person narrator only to be jerked away from that perspective by an intruding second POV, or sometimes a detail that the narrator couldn’t possibly have known.
Peter watched Millie begin to shiver. “Would you like my jacket?” Peter slipped off his coat. He had been waiting for this moment all week.
“Thank you.” Mille smiled and looked up into Peter’s eyes briefly before fiddling with her purse. Then she looked at her watch. “I really should be going.” But I really want to stay.
In the passage above, Peter narrates the story in the third person. The reader should only know what he knows. Then, as the readers may begin to identify with his character, Millie slips in an internal thought and the reader wonders with whom to identify or empathize. Suddenly, I’m jolted out of my experience with the narrator, wondering where things are headed or whether they are about to change direction. The narration has actually slipped into 3rd person limited omniscient. See below.
3rd Person Limited Omniscient:
Norman had cleared his computer off the dining room table, and was frying eggs in the kitchen for dinner. He smiled as he flipped the eggs and made sure Debbie’s turned out just the way she liked it, with the insides runny.
“Norman, I’ve got to go.” Debbie grabbed her purse and tied her scarf.
“Debbie, I don’t understand why you’re leaving.” Norman wiped his hands on his baggy chinos. Norman followed her to the door, pulling at his moustache. “When are you coming back?” Surely she’d be back tomorrow for their anniversary.
Her hand grazed his cheek. “Norman . . . I think it’s time we moved on.” She saw all the corners of his features fall, and she wondered if he’d ever leave that apartment again.
Norman’s heart flattened out like a kneaded a pile of dough. “But, but you can’t leave! Tomorrow’s our anniversary.”
Debbie sighed. Oh god. Here we go.
Once again, just like the examples in first and simple third person, the example above demonstrates how, after the reader begins to identify with one character, Norman, the narration begins to jump back and forth between Debbie’s and Norman’s perspectives, creating a disturbance or imbalance in POV. So, if the writer can’t get around presenting two characters’ perspectives in a work, I always suggest that they be separated by chapter by chapter.
These brief examples of text merely intend to make the point that only one little diversion from the writer’s chosen POV can take the reader out of focus from the work. Moreover, there’s a sense of trust a writer builds with the reader that comes from the narrator who takes care to usher the reader through the journey. It’s almost a hand-holding experience, and the narrator should be careful to never let go and let the reader feel abandoned or lost.
Choose a point of view that suits your story and commit to it. If writing in first or third person perspective, resist the temptation to slip in details that your chosen character would not know. Even if you challenge yourself to switch perspective by chapter, stay true to the POV of that character within that chapter. And if you choose a general omniscient perspective, study other successful examples before proceeding, and choose the mood with care. Stick with your carefully chosen and executed point of view, and your readers will follow your lead.